Five years after BP, science tells a devastating tale about sea life


Coming up on five years after the BP oil spill, science has told us only a fraction of what we need to know about the catastrophe and its pernicious impact on the marine life of the Gulf of Mexico. For one thing, some key studies are just getting underway now, as research institutions are finally getting a tiny slice of the billions of dollars that have been promised for the Gulf by the British oil giant.

In addition, as a recent report noted: “Much of the key research into the effects of the oil spill is being kept under wraps because it is being funded under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, which will be used by the U.S. government in court to determine how much BP should pay to restore the Gulf.” Of course, some experts have noted that it makes sense to defer at least some of the research, since some of the most severe impacts of what roughly 5 million barrels of crude oil has done to the food chain hasn’t even taken root yet.

Nonetheless, a spate of recent devastating reports paints a devastating picture of what so much crude oil has already done to this precious natural resource. Consider, for example, the plight of the bottlenose dolphin:

A new peer-reviewed study of deaths of bottlenose dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico finds the highest number of animal strandings and deaths between 2010 and early 2013 occurred in areas most impacted by the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, including Barataria Bay and other Louisiana locations.

In comparison, Gulf Coast areas of Texas and Florida, which experienced little to no oiling, saw few statewide increases in stranded dolphins between 2010 and June 2013, the study found.

The study said that while the causes of the Gulf’s “unusual mortality event” have not been determined, “the location and magnitude of dolphin strandings” in the year following the 2010 spill “overlap in time and space with locations that received heavy and prolonged oiling.”  That included a cluster of dolphins strandings and deaths in Barataria Bay from August 2010 to December 2011, said the study published online in the scientific journal PloS One.

In a statement released Thursday afternoon, BP said the study “does not show that the accident adversely impacted dolphin populations.”

So BP is trying to claim the evidence linking the deaths and the spills is merely circumstantial — but then how can it explain this new paper, presented at a major conference in Houston just this week:

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010 may have created a vast zone on the Gulf of Mexico floor where marine life is much sparser than before toxic petroleum settled there, according to studies presented Monday at a Houston conference on the BP oil spill.

Sperm whales are no longer feeding in a vast area of the Gulf of Mexico affected by the oil spill, an indication that there is nothing there to feed on, said Bruce Mate of the Hatfield Marine Science Center at Oregon State University, one of the scientists who conducted the study of 54 sperm whales from 2010 to 2013.  Whales that typically made repeated dives over the area before the oil spill afterwards shunned large parts of it and made few dives around its edges as they searched for squid.  Those areas are where millions of gallons of oil sank to the seabed, leading researchers to surmise that many organisms have perished over a 1,500 square-mile area.

Mate said he suspects the problem has to do with the food chain at the bottom of the Gulf, where there are no longer organisms to support the squid that are sperm whales’ main food source.

Mate said the zone could become a serious problem for marine life if it fails to heal.  ”My sense is that we’ve got a little bit of a tiger by the tail,” he said.  ”I think we need to be concerned about how long this lasts.”

Now, we can all agree that the gross negligence by BP which caused the 2010 spill in the first place was pretty outrageous. But the British oil giant has an amazing knack for adding insult to injury. How so? As the outstanding writer Michael Hiltzik noted recently in the Los Angeles Times, BP continues to cherry-pick information from these studies in a sad and desperate attempt to dodge the blame for killing these wonderfuk creatures in the Gulf. Here’s an except from a recent piece in which Hiltzik goes through the multiple ways that BP seeks to abuse the science:

It’s also true, but misleading, that the causes of the stranding and deaths “have not been determined.” Here, BP is taking advantage of scientists’ natural inclination to interpret data cautiously. The researchers acknowledge that many factors may be contributing to the dolphin die-off. But what the oil company doesn’t tell you is that the scientists have pointed the finger of suspicion pretty firmly at oil as a major culprit. 

The scientists observe, for example, that the most severe run of strandings — an above-average rate in 14 of the 16 months from August 2010 through November 2011 — in Barataria Bay, La., “a coastal area heavily impacted by the spill.” They say the timing and location of the Barataria stranding cluster is “consistent with the spatial and temporal distribution of oil to bay, sound, and estuary habitats in that region during and after the DWH oil spill.”

They add that Barataria Bay dolphins displayed conditions, including lung disease, “consistent with adverse health effects that might be expected following oil exposure based upon the literature of documented effects in other animal species.”

Outside Barataria Bay, the researchers note, “the location, timing, and magnitude of dolphin stranding trends observed following the DWH oil spill, particularly statewide for Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, overlap with the location and magnitude of oil during and the year following spill.”

BP’s actions here are shameless. Nearly five years after the spill, BP is still trying to salvage its reputation…but it’s also trying to save billions of dollars. Its efforts to undermine the scientific community dovetail with its efforts to sabotage the legal process meant to compensate the thousands of Gulf business owners and others who lost a big chunk of income in 2010 and beyond because of an oil company’s recklessness.

Let’s not lose sight of reality here. The truth is that study after study has documented significant damage not just to dolphins but to a wide range of marine life in the Gulf. The new studies that are coming down the pike will surely document the same thing. In the long run, BP might actually save itself a few dollars if it acknowledged today the consequences of what it did in 2010. Instead, the company is just killing something else…time.

You read more about the efforts by me and my allies in the environmental movement to get to the bottom of the BP spill in my new book: Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

To learn more about the deadly impact of the spill on bottleneck dolphins, please read:

Read the Houston Chronicle on how the BP oil spill diminished marine life in the Gulf:

Check out Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times on how BP is cherry picking the scientific data:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

© Smith Stag, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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